Have a Blast While You Last
January 15, 2008
A ten-year-old boy was asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Influenced by the threat of nuclear war and the reality of terrorist attacks around the world, the boy thought for a moment and then replied with just one word: “Alive.”
All of us join him in his wish. The love of life lies deep in the human soul. Jesus summed up his mission to earth with these famous words: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10 KJV). One man said that he used to hate getting up in the morning because he didn’t like his own life. Sin had gripped him so deeply that he didn’t care if he lived or died. Then he met Jesus. “Now I love my life. I love my family and I love my work. I’m overwhelmed everyday. I know that Christians are supposed to look forward to heaven, but I don’t want to die yet because I’m having so much fun.”
During the early years of my pastorate in Oak Park, IL, Shirley Banta served as my church secretary. When I met her, she had already been in that position for over 25 years. Although she was in her early 70s, Shirley stayed on to help me for several more years. When I taught through Ecclesiastes, I gave a lesson titled “Have a Blast While You Last.” Shirley liked it so much that she would say that to me. “Don’t forget, Pastor, have a blast while you last.” And if she forgot to say it to me, I would say it to her.
I always thought that little saying summed up an enormous spiritual truth. Since we won’t be here forever, we might as well have a blast while we last. Folk singer Joan Baez put it this way. “You don’t get to choose how you’re going to die, or when. You only get to choose how you’re going to live now.”
Go to a cemetery and look at any gravestone. Underneath the name you will see something like this:
A date of birth, a date of death, and a dash to represent everything in between. That’s all this life really is—the short little “-” between the time we show up and the time we depart. Either that thought makes us depressed or it inspires us to action. Perhaps we should put the question this way.
What are you doing with the dash? How will you fill the “-” that will someday mark your gravestone?
I think Shirley Banta’s cheerful reminder works as well as anything I know. Have a blast while you last. And I certainly think Solomon would agree.
How should we live in light of our coming death? Ecclesiastes 9:10 offers a simple answer. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” If we probe this famous verse and its immediate context, we find four principles that will indeed help us “have a blast while we last.”
I. Do whatever lies close at hand.
“Whatever your hand finds to do” (Ecclesiastes 9:10a).
Eugene Peterson’s translation (The Message) offers a punchier version of this phrase: “Whatever turns up, grab it and do it.” I like that because it emphasizes the unpredictable nature of life. No matter how well planned your day may be, something unexpected is always bound to “turn up.” When it does, grab it and do it. That’s good advice. The deeper meaning of this phrase challenges us to take hold of the ordinary responsibilities of life and make sure they get done. It’s easy for any of us to live in the never-never land of what we plan to do tomorrow. So we dream about starting a diet or getting a new job or buying a new computer or meeting someone who will sweep us off our feet or somehow finishing that term paper or painting the living room or learning French or calling on a new client or applying for a grant or going back to college, or any of a thousand other worthwhile ideas. Meanwhile, there is work to be done, much of it tedious, that somehow gets left undone while we are dreaming about what we are going to do “someday.” Unfortunately, someday never comes for many people.
“One good deed is worth more than a thousand brilliant theories,” said Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Better to do what you need to do than to waste four hours dreaming about what you would like to do. When Solomon says, “Whatever your hand finds to do,” he doesn’t mean, “If your hand happens to find something to do, do it, and if not, then take the day off and watch TV.” No! Your hand will always find something to do. There is always work to be done.
Someone has to clear the table.
Someone has to take out the trash.
Someone has to walk the dog and clean up the poop.
Someone has to pay the bills.
Someone has to get to the office early.
Someone has to check the invoices.
Someone has to prepare the lesson plans.
Someone has to replace the oil filter in the car.
Someone has to greet the customers.
Someone has to be on call this weekend.
Someone has to stay late and lock up.
Someone has to teach 4th-grade Sunday School class.
Someone has to run the soundboard during the second service.
Someone has to go to band practice.
Someone has to file the papers.
Someone has to review the loan application.
Someone has to drive the carpool on Thursday.
And so it goes. That’s what life is—a whole bunch of duties large and small that “someone” has to do. It won’t do to complain and say, “I don’t feel like doing it.” Your feelings don’t matter. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it! This is the Word of God. We all have work to do, we all have chores, jobs, responsibilities, assignments in life. No one gets a free ride. You can’t stay in bed forever.
Recently I ran across these words from C. S. Lewis:
Never commit your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment as to the Lord … The present is the only item in which any duty can be done or any grace received.
The future can seem fun and exciting when compared to what seems like the drudgery of the present. But the present is the doorway to the future. So jump in, grab hold, and do whatever lies close at hand.
Just do it, and tomorrow you’ll be glad you did.
II. Do Your Work With Passion.
“Do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10b).
Not only are we to do whatever lies close at hand, we are to tackle our work with gusto. The Puritans talked often about the importance of earnestness. That’s an old word, one we don’t hear much nowadays, but it perfectly describes how Christians should approach life. Life is too short, too fragile, and too precious to take lightly. Whatever we do, we should do it heartily, with enthusiasm, with passion, with zeal, with 100% commitment.
Martin Luther King, Jr. put this way:
Whatever your life’s work is, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.”
There is a huge theological truth underlying this principle. If you believe in the sovereignty of God, then it must be true that you are where you are because God wants you to be there, because if God didn’t want you to be there, you would be somewhere else. But since you are where you are right now, that must be because you are there by God’s design and when he wants you to be somewhere else, that’s where you’ll be. If you believe that, then you can do your work each day, even in a very bad situation, as unto the Lord, with all your might, for his glory.
III. Ponder the Brevity of Life.
“For in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 9:10c).
Although the first half of this verse is justly famous and often quoted, the last half is virtually unknown. It’s easy to see why that is so since it appears to be such a downer. Who wants to hear that they are going to the grave? That’s a fact we’d all rather ignore. I found a different translation of this verse in the Contemporary English Version: “Work hard at whatever you do. You will soon go to the world of the dead, where no one works or thinks or reasons or knows anything.” When I read that, it made the hair stand up on my neck. “You will soon go to the world of the dead” sounds like something you would find in a bad Chinese fortune cookie. But it is entirely true whether we like it or not. We’re all going to the land of the dead sooner or later.
As I thought about this, my mind drifted back to a little incident that happened when my father died 34 years ago. Between his death and the funeral several days later, my three brothers and I along with our mother went to the cemetery to pick out the gravesite. I recall that it was a sunny November day as we toured the cemetery and eventually settled on a nice plot on a sloping hillside. The man who worked for the cemetery had a good sense of humor because at one point he looked at my mother and said, “Mrs. Pritchard, we’re going to bury Dr. Pritchard a little bit off-center. That way there will be plenty of room for you later.” My mother gasped but the four Pritchard boys started laughing out loud. I still chuckle when I think about it today. And of course, the man was right. There is always room for someone else in the cemetery.
Twenty-nine years later my mother died. I had the honor of speaking at her graveside service where we buried her next to my father. While I was standing there, I had a surreal personal experience. Perhaps it happened partly because I was a bit under the weather, perhaps it was seeing so many old friends after three decades, perhaps it was because we were burying my mother and my father side by side. It was as if there was a “wrinkle in time” and the 29 years since my father died had suddenly been swallowed up. They just disappeared for a moment. I was in my early 20s when Dad died; I’m in my mid-50s now. Most of the family friends who came to the graveside service had been at my father’s funeral 29 years earlier. Most of them were in their early 50s then; most are in their late 70s or early 80s now. It seemed as if the three decades in between had just disappeared. All this passed through my mind in a flash while I was speaking. I could reach out and touch my mother’s coffin. I was standing three feet from where we buried my father. It was as if we buried my father last week, we were burying my mother this week, and next week someone would bury me. I had a tremendous sense of my own mortality, of the quickly passing years. It seemed as if the Lord whispered in my ear, “Ray, take a good look. This is where you will be someday.” And that day comes sooner than I think.
Yesterday my father died.
Today my mother died.
Tomorrow I will die.
Yet decades may pass between those events. But all are certain to happen. I cannot totally explain what I experienced that day, yet it was profound to me and I am still thinking about it. It was a revelation of my own weakness, my humanity, my frailty, a reminder that “dust thou art, to the dust thou shalt return.” This is always true for all of us, but often we live as if we don’t believe it.
Life is not a dress rehearsal. We only get one chance to do whatever we’re going to do on planet earth. Soon enough, sooner than we think, our moment in the sun will be over. Do you recall how on September 11, 2001, after the planes hit the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, millions of people picked up the phone to call each other? Parents called children, brothers called sisters, friends called friends, long-lost relatives called to make sure everyone was okay. One of the ironies of it all is that it takes a tragedy to force us to face the brevity of life.
IV. Be Thankful for Things Large and Small.
This principle actually comes from the verses that lead up to our text. “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun– all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:7-9).
Take time to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Solomon (who knew a thing or two about pleasure) offers some very practical advice. We might translate it into 21st-century idiom this way:
Enjoy a good meal.
Appreciate every moment as a gift from God.
Wear clothes that speak of joy, not sorrow.
Brush your hair.
Wash your face.
Put on your makeup.
Iron your shirt.
Put a smile on your face.
Don’t a grumpy old man (or woman).
Or a grumpy young one either.
Look for God’s hand at work in your life.
If you are married, enjoy your husband or your wife.
Savor every little moment you spend together.
Savor time with your close friends.
And realize that God is at work in the details of your life. Nothing has happened to you by chance because there is no such thing as chance or luck or fate. You have never had a true “accident” and you never will because God rules over every part of you life. God apportions to you a “lot” in life. That “lot” involves being born in a particular place, to this set of parents, of growing up in this particular home, in that town, in that country, and going to this school, meeting those friends, and following this particular career path. Things that seem to randomly happen to you are not random at all. They are all part of God’s plan. Some of it you see clearly, some of it makes no sense. If we are wise, we will see God’s hand at work even in those things that do not seem to “fit.”
It happens that I am writing these words at a missionary guesthouse in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. It is instructive to consider the preceding paragraph this way. What if I had been born in a village in Bolivia? My life would have been completely different than it has been. Not necessarily better or worse but different in its outward details. And the same goes for being born in Greece or Vietnam or Jordan or Norway. It is my “lot” in life to be Ray Pritchard, born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1952, raised in Russellville, Alabama, the son of Tyrus and Pud Pritchard, brother to Andy, Alan and Ron, husband to Marlene, father to Josh, Mark and Nick, father-in-law to Leah and Vanessa, and the happy owner of Dudley and Gary, our two fine basset hounds. Over the last 33 years Marlene and I have lived in Dallas, Texas; Midlothian, Texas; Downey, California; Garland, Texas; Oak Park, IL; and now we live in Tupelo, Mississippi. I could add details, but what does it matter? My 55 years can be summarized in two sentences. If I am ungrateful or unhappy, I am wasting what God has given me, and I am guilty of questioning God’s wisdom and doubting his goodness.
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
The God Sighting Game
Sometimes we need to be reminded that God is to be seen not just in the big events but also in the tiny details of life. A few years ago I came home from the church in a grouchy mood because things had not gone right. It had been a day of frustration—endless meetings, phone calls, dealing with contrary people, and in general it was one of those miserable days that we all have now and then. When Marlene asked me how my day had gone, I unloaded my litany of woe. When she was finished, she expressed sympathy and said she was sorry I had had a bad day. But it didn’t seem to me that she had fully grasped the depths of my frustration so I started to complain all over again. Sweet wife that she is, she listened a bit longer but finally her patience came to an end. Finally she decided she had heard enough so she said what wives have said to complaining husbands since the beginning of time: “Grow up.” I didn’t like that at all. For one thing, I didn’t want to grow up. I wanted to complain. “Don’t you even believe what you preach?” Ouch! That was hitting below the belt—throwing my sermons back at me. But she was right, of course. “Stop complaining and open your eyes and see how good God has been to us.”
Then she said, “Let’s play the God Sighting game.” I told her I didn’t want to play that game. I wanted to complain some more. She persisted, and grumbling all the way I agreed to play the God Sighting game. It’s very simple to do. You just look around and see where you can find God’s fingerprints in your life. So reluctantly I started to see where God would show up. And very soon I started to see him in small things. A phone call from a friend. The sun shining. A nice email. A friend who dropped by. A note from one of our boys with good news. A hymn that brought us joy. Do you know what we found? We discovered that if we paid attention, we started seeing God in many places. Sometimes it was just a small little thing God would do, just something that caused us to say, “That was the Lord who did that for us.” We learned that if you keep your eyes open for God, pretty soon you’ll see him everywhere. One of our problems is that we focus on the spectacular answers to prayer. God says, “That’s not always where you’re going to see me. Look for my fingerprints in the small things and listen for the whisper of my voice.” I found myself praying, “Lord, open the eyes of my heart that I might see you everywhere.” And you know what? It enabled me to see God at work in places where I had never seen him before.
Dying Young at a Very Old Age
You’ve probably seen the following quotation many times. It’s over 200 years old and comes originally from the Quakers.
I expect to pass through the world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.
Do not think you are immortal. When you die, we’ll take your body, put it in a box, and we’ll put the box in the ground. We’re all going to do some serious “box time” before it’s over. No one will escape “the box” unless you happen to live until the Rapture. The point is, do whatever you’re going to do now. If you intend to do some good deed, do it now. If you have some great plan, work on it now. If you intend to do something or be something or try something, do it or be it or try it now. You can take it easy in “the box.” Does that sound macabre to you? It shouldn’t. I submit that what I am saying is precisely the meaning of Ecclesiastes 9:10. Martin Luther said a man should live with the day of his death placarded before his eyes. Luther managed to turn the world upside down. Would that we had the same realistic view of life and death.
May I share with you the goal of my life? I want to die young at a very old age. That’s not just playing with words; that’s a philosophy of life. Growing old is not just a matter of chronology. It’s also a stage. You can be old at 20 and young at 85. My goal is to die young at a very old age, doing everything I can for Jesus Christ.
I want to go down serving and singing and loving and laughing and having a good time living my life until the day comes when they finally lower me into the ground.
The question is not “How old are you?” The question is “How old do you feel?”
How old was Abraham when Isaac was born? He was almost 100 years old.
How old was Moses when he led the Jews out of Egypt? He was 80 years old. Correction: He was 80 years young. An old man could never do what Moses did.
Looked at in that light, the statement “Have a blast while you last” is far more than a slogan. It’s the most biblically-based philosophy of life I’ve ever discovered.
The life of faith means that you live until you die and you don’t die until you’re dead. I don’t want to die until I’m dead. I want to live until the very last moment, fully invested for Jesus Christ and for his kingdom, doing everything I can to advance his cause in the world.
So enjoy the life God has given you.
Live every day to the max.
And have a blast while you last.